The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) published its much anticipated final report, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’, yesterday. The Scottish Government established the Group in July 2012 with a remit to develop “innovative and radical” land reform proposals addressing greater diversity of land ownership and ownership types, support for communities in land acquisition and management and new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland.
That’s a daunting set of tasks to say the least, particularly given the complex, contentious and expansive nature of the ‘Land Question’ in Scotland. It’s therefore to the LRRG’s great credit that ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ largely succeeds in fulfilling its remit; all the more so given the Group’s much maligned Interim Report published in May last year and the disruption caused by the resignations of its two original Vice-Chairs, Professor James Hunter and Dr Sarah Skerratt for personal and work-related reasons respectively.
In the wake of that Interim Report, a re-booted LRRG, in which the Chair, Dr Alison Elliot, was joined by John Watt, Ian Cooke and Pip Tabor as new Vice-Chairs and Robin Callander as Special Advisor, confirmed that it would be looking at the “broad sweep of what might be considered land reform issues in Scotland”. ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ certainly does that. In 263 carefully structured pages the report contextualises land reform in Scotland to date and presents background information, analysis and recommendations on a host of inter-related issues pertaining to aspects of land ownership and use ranging from community and public ownership to local development, housing and agricultural land holdings.
An overarching theme of the analysis is that Scotland’s land tenure system should operate for the common good of the people of Scotland as a whole. Refreshingly, the report also provides a definition of land reform as encompassing “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”. As Andy Wightman notes in his blog, the report’s statement of that definition is important because it dispels the myth that ‘land reform’ is somehow the exclusive preserve of rural Scotland or, even more myopically, the Highlands and Islands.
The report isn’t slow to debunk other myths either, most notably the view routinely trotted out by Scotland’s landed elite that it is land use rather than land ownership that matters. The report states: “Ownership is the key determinant of how land is used, and the concentration of private ownership in rural Scotland can often stifle entrepreneurial ambition, local aspirations and the ability to address identified community need. The concentrated ownership of private land in rural communities places considerable power in the hands of relatively few individuals, which can in turn have a huge impact on the lives of local people and jars with the idea of Scotland being a modern democracy”.
Neither does the report spare successive Scottish Governments for abdicating their responsibilities for continuing the contemporary land reform process put in motion by Lord Sewel’s Land Reform Policy Group (LRPG) in 1999. It states bluntly that land reform measures since 2003 were “specific responses to particular issues, rather than part of any wider land reform strategy or programme. Many of the measures were not generally seen as ‘land reform’ as such. This has resulted in a sense of loss of momentum in taking forward the type of broad, modernising land reform agenda covered by the LRPG’s recommendations”.
It’s this failure to sustain momentum and establish a coherent policy framework for land reform, based on the common good and public interest, that informs much of the thinking underpinning the LRRG’s recommendations. Indeed, considered in its totality, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ may be viewed as an attempt to revitalise the LRPG’s broad modernising agenda by placing land reform front and centre as an issue of public policy in Scotland. This is reflected in the report’s call for a National Land Policy with new institutions (Scottish Land and Property Commission, Community Land Agency, Housing Land Corporation) and adequate resources and amended legislation to support community acquisitions. Additionally, the report makes a range of specific proposals relating to issues such as devolving the Crown Estate’s powers, investigating the scope for introducing a Land Value Tax, capping the size of privately owned estates, modifying inheritance laws and removing business rates exemptions for rural landowners.
Some will doubtless see these proposals as a great leap backwards. Scottish Land and Estates has called the report “extremely disappointing in that it does not reflect the very substantial social, economic, and environmental contribution made to Scotland by private landownership of all scales”. In contrast, many others will warmly welcome the report as the basis for a more progressive approach to local democracy, development and social justice that places land ownership and use at its centre. A more progressive approach that could begin now given that almost all of the proposals in the report can be implemented under devolution.
Ultimately, of course, it’s the response of Scotland’s political elite to the report’s recommendations that will determine its fate. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens have already called for further action on land reform following its publication. When interviewed for BBC Scotland’s documentary on ‘The Men Who Own Scotland’ some months ago, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Environment Minister also seemed pretty unequivocal in stating the SNP’s appetite for radical change:
“My party genuinely believes that there should be a fair distribution of land, that communities should have access to land to fulfil their aspirations and we are setting out a vision of what we want to achieve….. If we don’t see a fairer distribution of land then, as a Parliament, we will have failed the people of Scotland”.
The Scottish Government wanted “innovative and radical” proposals on land reform from the LRRG. Well, now it has them. It’s time to replace talk with action.